Car Choice for the Drive to South America

Your choice of car is very important.

  • Do not choose a diesel engined car. (this is in case something happens to your car’s engine.  Every single time something was wrong under the hood, the mechanics would open it up, see it and say, “ah it’s a diesel engined car!”  Diesel engined passenger cars are so rare in Latin America that I never met a mechanic that readily knew how to fix a diesel engined car… not just the engine, but the parts around it.  Most of them were able to figure it out, but it was clear that they didn’t like trying to figure out something new.  If you don’t think anything substantial will happen to your car during the drive, and/or you know enough about your car, then feel free to take a diesel engined car!  Perhaps it was also due to the fact that my car was made in 1980…)
  • Try to take a manual stickshft car if possible.
  • 4X4 is NOT a necessity. I never felt restricted by lack of 4X4 capability. However, if you plan on deviating much from the local roads and highways, you should obviously get a car with one.
  • Pay special attention to suspension/shocks. Are they going to last thousands of bumps, dips, cracks, up to 15,000 ft elevation for more than 15,000 miles? If not, invest in a a good set. You will not regret this move, trust me.


Obviously, you shouldn’t choose a particular model just because it’s on the top of the list. Choose a car that will need as little maintenance as possible, as well as one that will be easily repairable by the Latin American countries.

Very often
  • Nissan
  • Toyota
  • Chevrolet
  • Ford
  • Dodge
  • Chrysler
  • Hyundai
  • Kia
  • Mazda
  • Peugeot
  • Daewoo
  • Jeep
  • GMC
  • Mitsubishi
  • Pontiac
  • Saab
  • Suzuki
  • Volkswagen
  • Acura
  • Audi
  • BMW
  • Cadillac
  • Isuzu
  • Lexus
  • Mercedes-Benz
  • Subaru
  • Buick
  • Honda
  • Hummer
  • Infiniti
  • Jaguar
  • Land Rover
  • Lincoln
  • Mercury
  • MINI
  • Porsche
  • Saturn
  • Scion
  • Volvo


You don’t need to be a mechanic to make this trip (I still don’t even know how to change my oil), but being prepared enough to take some important equipment with you will save you a lot of time, money, and headaches.

At a minimum, carry the following.

  • Not all Latin American countries will have auto parts for your car readily available. So make sure you carry at a minimum the following.
  • Before you leave, have your mechanic do a total checkup of your car. (Batteries, shocks, leaks, engine/transmission, brakes, tires, the whole deal)
  • Mechanic Tools
  • Fluids (transmission, oil, brake)
  • Oil filters
  • Brake pads (carry 3 front sets for every 1 back set. That’s because the front brake pads are responsible for ~75% of your stoppage power.)
  • Any hoses and lines that your mechanic deems to be a necessity.
  • Windshield wipers. A good pair will see you through the Latin American rainy seasons. In Central America, it wasn’t uncommon to see it rain every afternoon. Carry a pair for every 3 months you plan on being on the road.
  • Your car’s manual. This usually runs around $20-$30. Get one in Spanish, too, if you can. Even if you don’t know what to do with it, the Latin American mechanics will.

My car

I want to take this time to finalize the list of things that went wrong with my car.

1980 Mercedes Benz 300SD Turbo Diesel.

  • Exhaust hangers broke at least 8 times
  • Rear CV boots cracked open and all 4 had to be replaced in Mexico
  • Front brake pads burned out and had to be found and replaced in Costa Rica
  • Brake master cylinder was leaking and was replaced the part in Ecuador
  • Accelerator was sticking and I had to tie the rod to a tube in Peru
  • Turbo blew out after landing on the front end hard and was repaired in Peru
  • Front windshield started cracking and I drilled a hole to stop it
  • All 4 windows malfunctioned and I had to open the door to pay toll several times
  • Reverse transmission gear failed in Chile
  • Car finally died in Argentina.  (a gentleman from says similar thing happened to him and killed his 79 300SD due to a cracked crank)

Please learn from my mistakes and do not take an ancient Diesel engined car that no one would know what to do with. Fortunately for me, Latin Americans are extremely patient and their clever ingenuity saw me through to the end. Also, it allowed me to get to know some remarkable people I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten to know.

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